In May, 1986, shortly after the disaster at Chernobyl, President Reagan denounced the Soviet Union for its “secrecy and stubborn refusal to inform the international community of the common danger.” Other senior U.S. officials told the New York Times that the world “now sees not only how callously the Kremlin has handled this episode, but also, by extension, how dangerous it is to trust their good will on other questions like arms control.”
Americans and others were justifiably upset that it took Soviet officials 30 hours to acknowledge the accident at Chernobyl. Had Swedish authorities not detected unusually high levels of radioactivity in the air over Sweden, it is possible the Chernobyl accident would have remained a secret for some time longer.
What are we to make, then, of the U.S. Department of Energy’s startling admission that it, and its predecessor--the Atomic Energy Commission--kept secret for decades serious accidents at the Savannah River Nuclear Reactor in South Carolina? What are we to make of revelations about the Energy Department’s failure to inform residents near its Fernald, Ohio, nuclear plant that tons of radioactive uranium wastes have been released from the plant over the years? What about the veil of secrecy that has surrounded mismanagement and sloppy operation at Rocky Flats and Hanford? What of the admission that more than 5,000 curies of radioactive iodine were intentionally released at Hanford as part of a uranium cooking experiment? These plants, all part of the U.S. nuclear-weapons production complex, have imperiled the public health for nearly four decades. We are just now learning how seriously.
While it appears releases from Hanford and other U.S. facilities do not pose long-term medical consequences as severe as Chernobyl, the pervasive secrecy of the past four decades makes it impossible to tell. In both cases, however, civilians are the unwitting victims of a technology out of control.
Informed consent is a concept familiar to physicians. Patients are entitled to know the risks they run when agreeing to medical procedures. Failure to inform can void the patient’s consent and lead to liability for the physician. The Energy Department’s deception and secrecy about its nuclear-weapons plants have made unwitting victims not just of those downwind from the reactors, but of all of us. Had we known the dangers, would we have consented?
Decades of false assurances and lies about the safety of weapons production had a purpose: to stifle public opposition and to manufacture an “uninformed” consent for bomb-making. It is part of a larger deception in which the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union and other countries have managed to convince the world that their security depends on the mutual threat of a global nuclear holocaust. It appears that we have all consented to the strategy of mutually assured destruction, the massive bomb production that supports it and the public-health catastrophe that will follow if the bombs are ever used. But this consent could only be obtained by concealing the truth about the entire enterprise, from production of the weapons to the theories that support their existence and possible use.
As Americans who believe deeply in the traditional values embodied in the words, “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” we are particularly angered that some in our government, while pointing the finger elsewhere, have been engaged in a large-scale cover-up of the dangers involved in the production of nuclear weapons.
Informed consent is the cornerstone of democracy. By concealing the truth about the unsafe operation of Savannah River, Fernald, Rocky Flats and Hanford, and by endangering the public health in the process, the Department of Energy has broken faith with the people of this country. Such deception and secrecy may be common elsewhere, but they have no place in the United States. Fortunately, in a democracy we have the means and power to expose these sometimes deadly secrets. It is a power we must use.
We are also troubled by the deceptions employed to garner popular support for nuclear weapons themselves. Does national security really depend on continually threatening a global holocaust? If nuclear weapons are only for deterrence, why have the United States and the Soviet Union amassed nearly 60,000 of them? Human extinction would be guaranteed at half that level. Isn’t that deterrence enough?
If deterrence were really the strategy, the arms race would have ended decades ago. We are told that nuclear weapons have kept the peace for 40 years and will continue to do so. But a drunk who sets out to drive from New York to Los Angeles ought not to take his successful passage through Newark as assurance of a safe journey ahead.
Unless we act decisively now to end the production of all nuclear weapons, the time bomb we have built will someday go off. When it does, your doctor will not be able to help you or your family. You have been informed. Are you still willing to give your consent?